This is actually a short story rather than flash fiction, because it’s 2500 words. This takes place the Christmas after The Dr Pepper Prophecies. It’s set around the same time as the book I’m writing now, but doesn’t have any spoilers for that.
This was part of a story I wrote last Christmas called Christmas Crackers. Goodreads fans might have seen the cover come up there. I eventually decided not to release it, because the second part had some spoilers in it for the book about Brittany that I’m writing now.
You can also read this on Wattpad.
I’m having two Christmas dinners this year. In theory, this is fantastic. In practice, not so much. This is because I have to have the first one with my boyfriend Will’s parents (who are still convinced that Will should have married his evil ex-girlfriend) and the second with mine (who think I should have dragged Will down the aisle in June, despite the fact that we only got together in April).
Admittedly we have been best friends for twenty-six years, so I don’t think we could be accused of rushing into it, but even so.
We approach Will’s parents’ house laden down with gifts and I try to psyche myself up. Every time I come here I destroy something of great value – monetary or sentimental. Thus further proving to them that I Am Not Worthy Of Their Son.
I hate this house. Will’s dad made a fortune selling posh furniture to people with too much money and moved the family from the other half of my parents’ semi into a detached, mock Tudor home in a much posher suburb. I think it’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen and not remotely homely. So does Will, but his opinion wasn’t asked either.
‘It won’t be that bad,’ Will says, kissing my cold cheek as we approach the front door. ‘Honestly. Charlie will be there this year. We just skyped this morning and he promised to help keep their minds off you.’
Charlie is Will’s older brother, who lives in Australia so we hardly ever see him.
‘How’s he going to do that?’ I ask morosely, as Will presses the doorbell.
‘Oh, you know Charlie. He’ll find a way.’
I’m perched on a sofa that costs more to buy than my flat costs to rent (and I live in London, so even my matchbox costs half a lottery win), holding a glass of mulled wine (which I can’t stand) and trying not to drop mince pie crumbs on myself. I succeed. I drop the filling instead. Sigh.
Will’s parents (read, his mother) have bought me a book on modern etiquette. Just what I wanted. I wonder if I should try to explain that I’m a lost cause, because – even if I know the rules – put me in a formal situation and something always goes wrong.
And yes, I know it’s the thought that counts. Unfortunately, in this case, the thought is ‘she’s not good enough for my son.’
They got Will a Kindle. I’m going to have to check it when we get home to make sure she hasn’t downloaded something titled How to Get Your Ex Back onto it.
Everything in Will’s parents’ house is immaculate. Will’s mother makes Brittany look like one of those poor sods on How Clean Is Your House? I find it hard to believe she ever had children. When they were small, she used to keep Will and Charlie confined to the playroom and garden to contain the mess. It’s no wonder Will spent so much time round at my house. So really, she has only herself to blame for our relationship.
I see her looking sideways at me, as I attempt to clean myself up with a napkin.
‘By the way, Will,’ she says. ‘I saw Natalie in town while I was Christmas shopping.’
Will’s most recent ex. Who only I ever seemed to realise was an evil bitch.
Will glances at me. ‘Oh.’
‘She’s doing so well – yet another promotion! And she’s looking wonderful. Just come back from the Caribbean apparently. Isn’t that exciting?’
‘She asked after you.’
‘I sent your love.’
Will gets up. ‘Mum, could you show me which glasses you wanted on the dinner table?’
‘Of course, dear,’ she says, leading the way through to the kitchen. ‘And she was just telling me how…’ Her voice is muffled as they shut the door behind them.
I smile uneasily at Will’s dad, sitting beside the (fake) log fire and sipping brandy. He looks back. And says nothing.
A minute passes.
‘I’ll just pop to the loo,’ I whisper.
On the way, I stop outside the kitchen door and listen.
‘I’m just saying you should keep in touch,’ Will’s mother is saying. ‘Just in case. It’s such early days with Mel.’
‘Eight months after 25 years of friendship is not early days.’
‘Yes, but for most of that you were just children! Making mud pies with a girl is hardly preparation for marriage.’
‘I don’t know. A willingness to get dirty is pretty important.’
‘I get enough of that from Charlie, thank you very much. Honestly, I don’t know where you learnt to be so crude.’
‘I knew it. I told your father he wasn’t a suitable babysitter.’
I hear footsteps towards the door and scuttle upstairs.
‘When’s Charlie getting here?’ Will is asking when I go back in.
His mother checks the clock. ‘Any minute, dear. He said they should be here by one.’
‘They?’ I ask, before I manage to bite my tongue. ‘Charlie’s bringing a girl home? To Christmas dinner?’
‘Just a friend,’ she says, waving a hand dismissively. ‘A man he works with.’
If Charlie actually did bring a girlfriend to meet the parents, I could guarantee no more attention would be paid to me. This having never happened in his entire 32 years of working his way through the female half of the world.
I think that’s why he moved to Australia. He just ran out of potential bed-partners over here.
I should have got Will to email him and ask him to bring an escort or something. Knowing Charlie, he’d probably have done it.
‘Ah, this must be them,’ she says, as the doorbell rings. She heads into the hall to answer it.
Will moves over to sit with me in the place she’s vacated.
‘Just wait,’ he whispers in my ear, squeezing my leg. ‘Things are about to get interesting.’
‘What do you mean?’ I whisper back.
I hate it when he keeps secrets.
Nothing momentous happens. We all greet Charlie’s friend. He’s tall, blond, fit and looks like a surfer, so does improve the scenery. So does Charlie, who’s tall, dark and cute like Will, but I’ve never quite forgiven him for stealing my knickers in primary school.
Will’s mother ushers us all through to the dining room. As with everything in this house, the dining table is overdone. It wouldn’t be out of place in Downton Abbey.
So we’re sitting round it, tucking into a genuinely delicious Christmas dinner and gamely pretending that Will’s mother cooked it herself. Will and I are one side, Charlie and Riley on the other and Will’s parents at the head and foot. I’ve already spilt gravy down my reindeer jumper (a present from my flatmate Beth) and dropped a potato into Will’s lap. Fortunately he’s used to it and didn’t even pause in his chat with Charlie about his work. Apparently they’re designing a really tall bridge for people to hurl themselves off. Bungee jumping, that is, not suicide. Though I suppose these things are dual purpose.
‘So you work with Charlie, Riley?’ Will’s mother asks politely.
‘He’s my boss,’ Riley replies, flashing a naughty grin.
Will’s mother’s eyebrows shoot up to her hairline. ‘Charlie, is it entirely appropriate to socialise with your underlings?’
‘I’m only technically in charge of him,’ Charlie says, a trifle defensively. ‘And it’s not like he’s the office junior or anything. We hadn’t even met until the Christmas party.’
‘And that was only because he got rat-arsed and tried to…’
‘Anyway!’ Charlie interrupts. ‘Mel, when are you going to become my sister-in-law?’
I resist the urge to roll my eyes at him.
‘Oh, it’s far too soon to think of that,’ Will’s mother puts in, waving her hand dismissively.
I’m not actually sure whose attitude I find more irritating: hers or my dad’s.
‘Of course,’ Charlie says. ‘I mean, it took him 25 years to ask her out. We obviously can’t expect an engagement before middle age.’
‘Hey!’ Will protests.
‘That’s a bit rich coming from you,’ I say crabbily, annoyed that even Mr Free Love himself can’t back me up.
‘Yes, when are you going to settle down, Charlie dear?’
‘Actually mum, I’m tying the knot next Christmas,’ Charlie says, calmly helping himself to more potatoes.
There’s a stunned silence. I look at Will, who clearly knew about this. I’ll have to have words with him later.
Will’s mother recovers first. ‘To whom?’ she enquires, in a strangled voice.
He looks up. ‘To Riley.’
Bloody hell. Charlie?
Will’s mother has gone completely white.
‘He even got me an engagement ring,’ Charlie says blithely, displaying his left hand round the table. ‘Cool, huh?’
I stare at Will’s mother in fascination. She’s starting to turn a blotchy red colour that looks distinctly unhealthy. I’m sorely tempted to snap a photo. Or maybe a video. I’m positive it would go viral.
‘Charlie, how could this happen?’ she whispers finally.
‘This… Him… You…’
‘Well, it involved some handcuffs, a rabbit and a tub of ice cream. I’m not sure you want to know.’
‘But you’ve always dated women. You love women.’
‘And he’s a man!’
‘Is he? Goodness, you’d think the penis would have given it away.’
‘Mum,’ Charlie says, looking straight across the table at her, ‘I know you’re surprised. If it helps, I was surprised too. But the fact is that I love Riley, he loves me and we’re going to get married next Christmas regardless of whether you approve.’
Will’s mother pours another glass of wine with shaking hands and downs the lot in one go. ‘But you can’t marry another man.’
‘Yes I can. Not in Australia, admittedly, but we can have a civil union there and then get married in Canada on honeymoon.’
‘But… what will people say? What will we tell the neighbours? How will we tell the neighbours?’
‘Well, we could always shag in the garden. That would probably get the point across.’
‘I don’t think you should do that.’
‘Thank you, Will.’
‘It’s -2 out there. Everything would shrivel up.’
I can’t resist. ‘Hot tub?’ I suggest.
‘We could email round a video.’
Is it wrong that I’d like to watch that?
‘You could always just say: ‘Charlie’s finally fallen in love and he’s getting married next year’ and then go from there,’ Charlie suggests. ‘And if they freak out when you tell them it’s to another man, you could tell them to sod off.’
‘I am not telling the neighbours to do that.’
‘Or you could just not tell them. In fact you could disown me. Up to you. It won’t change anything.’
‘Your choice.’ Charlie shrugs. ‘Nothing to say, Dad?’
Will’s dad sips his wine. ‘Just one thing. If you’re trying to keep something like this a secret, don’t Skype people with your boyfriend wandering around naked in the background.’
‘Riley!’ Charlie exclaims. ‘I told you to stay out of sight.’
Riley pulls a face. ‘Sorry! I thought I was. I was just trying to work out where you’d thrown my underpants.’
I try my best to hide my laugh behind my napkin at the horrified look on Will’s mother’s face.
‘No, no problems, son. You’re just a chip off the old block.’
A moment’s silence.
‘Pardon?’ Will says.
His dad shrugs. ‘Well, you know I liked the ladies before I was married, but I also had a fling with this chap called Kenneth in 1962 when we were on holiday in Germany. Gorgeous he was.’
He shakes his head, apparently lost in tender memories. ‘God, that man could suck like a Dyson.’
Will starts coughing as a mouthful of wine goes down the wrong way.
‘You all right, son?’
‘Oh fine,’ he wheezes. ‘Just the tiniest bit surprised to find out that my dad is gay.’
‘Don’t be silly son,’ Will’s dad says briskly. ‘Knightley men aren’t gay, we’re just flexible.’
Will goes a bit green.
‘Amen to that,’ Charlie says, holding up his glass. ‘A toast to being flexible.’
Charlie, Riley and Will’s dad clink glasses.
‘Are you flexible?’ I ask Will.
He swallows. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Never say never,’ Charlie chips in. ‘I’d never fancied a man either until I met Riley.’
Will does not look comforted by this.
Will’s mother drinks a large glass of scotch and goes to bed ‘with a headache’. The other men start getting quietly hammered and sharing increasingly explicit stories. Will and I take our leave.
‘I love you,’ I tell Charlie fervently. ‘And you,’ I add to Riley. ‘You’ve completely taken over Christmas and totally distracted your mother from my inadequacies as a potential daughter-in-law.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Charlie says, giving me a hug. ‘It was fun. I’ve been looking forward to that ever since me and Riley got together!’
‘You evil bastard,’ I whisper, as I hug Riley too.
‘Bastards,’ he corrects, with a wink. ‘I’m the one who suggested he wait until Christmas dinner.’
I look from one to the other. ‘I’m starting to see the attraction.’
‘Can you save up another bombshell for next Christmas?’ I ask hopefully. ‘Announce you’re going to adopt or something?’
Charlie laughs. ‘I’m sure we can come up with something.’
I drive us to my parents’ house in Will’s car, since he’s had a stiff drink and is slightly in shock. I, however, am loving my Christmas so far. Christmas dinner hasn’t been that entertaining… well, ever.
On the way I sing along to Christmas carols on the radio. Just a couple of hours of my parents dropping hints about Will’s and my future wedding to endure and then we can go home and actually celebrate.
‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about Charlie,’ I complain to Will.
‘Sorry!’ Will says, holding his hands up. ‘I just thought you’d enjoy the surprise. The look on Mum’s face was priceless, wasn’t it?’
‘It was. How long have you known?’
‘Only since this morning. He called while you were in the shower.’
‘How long have they been together?’
‘A bit over a year, apparently.’
‘And he’s just telling you now?’
Will shrugs. ‘I’m quite surprised he gave me advance warning at all, actually.’
‘How come you two never really talk?’
‘We talk as much as you and Brittany used to,’ he points out.
‘True,’ I admit.
Will sighs. ‘We’re just too similar, I think. Although, after today, I find that rather worrying. We can both see some of our major flaws in each other and so we rub each other up the wrong way. He invited us out to Australia for the wedding, though. Or the civil whatever. Fancy going?’
Christmas spent on a beach on the Gold Coast in the middle of summer and on the other side of the world from my parents? Hmm…
‘I love your brother,’ I say happily. ‘Not as much as I love you, though.’
‘Good to know,’ Will replies. ‘Hang on. Shouldn’t you have turned off back there?’
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